Confirmation by the US and Britain of widespread use of cluster munitions in Iraq caused anger yesterday among campaigners and politicians who claimed it ran counter to the coalition's aim to minimize civilian casualties.
The danger posed by the use of these weapons, designed to destroy concentrations of armour and infantry by scattering small bomblets over a wide area, was shown during the Nato bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and again last year in Afghanistan.
An Iraqi child reportedly wounded by coalition cluster bombs in Hilla. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has defended he use of cluster bombs.(AFP/File/Karim Sahib)
"We are appalled, in the context of a conflict where we have been assured that civilian casualties will be minimized. It is very hard to use these weapons knowing exactly who you are going to target," said Richard Lloyd, director of Landmine Action.
The weapons are dropped or fired in such large quantities at any one time that, with a failure rate as high as one in 10, an attack leaves hundreds of unexploded bomblets scattered around a target site, creating a de facto minefield.
Although many are unleashed as so-called cluster bombs, both the US and British armies have also fired large numbers from the ground in artillery barrages.
Campaign groups such as Landmine Action and the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund are targeting the use of these weapons, in the same way they successfully fought for the ban on anti-personnel mines under the 1998 Ottawa treaty.
The debate has heightened the sensitivity to their use among the military, particularly the British, as demonstrated by a bizarre chain of events yesterday.
A donkey lies dead near shrapnel-riddled bus in Hilla. Forty-eight civilians were killed by cluster bombs during a coalition air raid in the southern province of Babylon. (AFP/Karim Sahib)
Officers at a British divisional headquarters near Basra confirmed that new cluster munitions, with a much lower failure rate, had been fired by artillery at targets around Basra, although not where they might injure civilians.
Almost immediately, however, Colonel Chris Vernon, the spokesman at the British army headquarters in Kuwait, categorically denied that any such weapons had been used.
Hours later, Geoff Hoon, UK defense secretary, contradicted that statement when he confirmed in parliament that British forces were in fact using cluster munitions.
Mr Hoon said the weapons were used only when it was "absolutely justified . . . because it is making the battlefield safer for our armed forces".
Mr Lloyd said they were in fact a threat to forces who used them, adding: "The first British casualties in Kosovo were two Ghurkhas killed clearing our own cluster munitions."
The US was put on the defensive yesterday after the International Red Cross backed Iraqi claims that BLU-97 cluster bombs had been used in the town of Hilla.
Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks, the spokesman at Central Command, said he did "not have any factual basis" on which to respond.
But Mr Lloyd said: "We have some very clear footage of unexploded BLU-97s in the ground in Hilla. We are very clear on that and would stake our reputation on it."
Paul Keetch, defense spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Cluster bombs send the wrong message to the people whose hearts and minds we are trying to win."
Additional reporting by By Victor Mallet in Kuwait City, Richard McGregor at Central Command, Qatar, and Jean Eaglesham in London
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003